Uncertainty Sown: Why Americans Don't Care Enough About Climate Change

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Uncertainty Sown: Why Americans Don't Care Enough About Climate Change

New polling suggests that deliberate spread of climate denialism is working

As world leaders convene at the United Nations COP21 summit in Paris to negotiate a climate agreement that hopes to limit global warming to 2º Celsius, Americans remain split on whether the government should even intervene to combat rising temperatures. (Photo: BennettV via David Suzuki Foundation)

As world leaders convene at the United Nations COP21 summit in Paris to negotiate a climate agreement that hopes to limit global warming to 2º Celsius, Americans remain split on whether the government should even intervene to combat rising temperatures. (Photo: BennettV via David Suzuki Foundation)

Despite the overwhelming evidence that global warming poses an existential threat to planetary life as well as the growing global consensus that it is something we should be "very" concerned about, new polling released this week finds that Americans are way behind when it comes to taking the issue of climate change seriously.

A new ABC News/ Washington Post poll published Monday finds that the number of Americans who say climate change is a "serious problem" has fallen six points since the same poll was conducted in June 2014. At the same time, the number of people who say climate change is not at all a serious problem (36 percent) has grown 7 points since the previous poll. 

What's more, as world leaders convene at the United Nations COP21 summit in Paris to negotiate a climate agreement that hopes to limit global warming to 2º Celsius, Americans remain split on whether the government should even intervene to combat rising temperatures.

Analyses of this seemingly American phenomenon—that climate change and ambitions to stem it are something to be questioned—point to the vast and deep-pocketed network whose job it is to dispute the scientific consensus and maintain a cultural skepticism.

A study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change examines the institutional and corporate structure of the climate change counter-movement. Report author Justin Farrell, who works as an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, uncovered a web of 4,556 individuals with overlapping ties to 164 organizations that promote climate denialism.

And at the helm, ExxonMobil and the Charles and David Koch family foundations "emerge as the most significant sources of funding for these skeptics," as Bloomberg reports. According to Farrell, those organizations "were most successful in pushing their view" as groups with ties to those donors were "more likely to see their viewpoints make it into media than those without such ties."

That paper piggybacks on another study also by Farrell published last week which found that Exxon and Koch were systematically driving climate skepticism through, as Common Dreams reported at the time, the "creation of climate disinformation think tanks and dissemination of coordinated contrarian messaging in mainstream media and public discourse."

Exxon is currently under fire after two recent investigations revealed that the company had known, and suppressed, information pertaining to global warming for decades—all the while sowing the seeds of climate skepticism.

The dangers of this "ecosystem of influence," as Farrell put it, are self-evident.

In a Guardian op-ed published Tuesday, three scientists tackle the power of the "uncertainty principle" that has pervaded the climate change debate.

Stephan Lewandowsky and Richard Pancost with the University of Bristol and the University of Queensland's Timothy Ballard note that efforts to spread uncertainty by Exxon and others have proved "politically effective because they equate uncertainty with the possibility that a problem may be less serious than anticipated, while ignoring the often greater likelihood that the problem may be more deleterious."

Such uncertainty, they continue, may "stimulate a bias against the very creativity that would be needed to solving the crisis," as people are witnessing in cases where climate skepticism or uncertainty is blocking viable solutions to the climate crisis.

However, the troubling paradox with climate science is that "greater uncertainty about the climate’s sensitivity to carbon emissions means that there is greater, not lesser, risk."

"Uncertainty may be Exxon’s friend, but it is not ours," they conclude. "And we therefore know, from uncertainty, with considerable certainty that we need to act on climate change."

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